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Rising Asian racism in Israel amidst the outbreak of coronavirus

By Mansheetal Singh

Israel is often delineated as a mosaic of cultures and diverse ethnic groups. The society is a rendition of people and communities coming from varied nations with manifestations of cultures and heritage from all around the globe, uniquely different from one another in every sense. Israel’s multicultural traits became popular with an increase in cultural movements and trends which accentuated the diversity of their society and culture. The idea to bring this notion up is to acknowledge, motivate and attest the participation of ethnic groupings in all domains of this small West Asian nation.

Although multiculturalism in Israel revels ethnocultural diversity, they have also been using ethnic and racist slurs against their own kin. The act of ‘othering’ and ‘alienating’ has persisted in Israel ever since it came into existence. Israel is a highly ramified society, bifurcated by ethno-national lines which distinguishes the Jewish and the Arab populace and discerns sub-groups within each community. The Israeli society is a nexus of different communities originating from a vast number of countries creating a national cleavage between the Jews and the Arabs. The cleavage doesn’t stop with the Jews and the Arabs but go deeper within the Jewish communities where the people immigrating from the Americas and the Europe are considered as ‘Ashkenazims’ and the people settling in Israel from the Asia and the Africa are called as the ‘Mizrahims.’ Since the inception of Israel, the Mizrahims have been treated unequally for belonging to a third world country. Such behavior is deep rooted in the social construct of the Israeli society.

Scholars have always argued that accommodating multiculturalism may pander the threat of xenophobic feelings or it may encourage racism and intolerance leading to alienation of newcomers as ‘others.’ Israel has never ceased to acknowledge its ethnic communities and minority groups, but the society has been very critical of the people around them. Although the Jewish communities share same rights, they are often challenged and discriminated on the grounds of demographic divide and skin color. The divide between the society has been triggered again due to the recent outbreak of Coronavirus which originated in China. Ever since then, there have been reported cases of intolerance and racism on the basis of descent and appearances.

Rising Racism in University Campuses

Known for its outstanding educational institutions, Israel has attracted many Chinese students in the past few years. Israel’s top university Hebrew University of Jerusalem is known for its sizable proportion of Chinese students. Since the outbreak of Coronavirus, the university campus has become a popular station for targeting Chinese students.

In a closed WeChat group at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Chinese students shared their disturbing racist encounters in the campus and outside the campus premises. A member of the group said that “people cover their noses when they see me,” while the other was forced to contend with people shouting “Coronavirus!” at him.

Another university student, shared his concern that Israelis “are really afraid that we (Chinese students) might spread the virus to them” He also complained of people “shouting ugly words and making exaggerated body gestures.” He further adds that the public comments such as “China, Ni Hao” have been replaced with “Sini Sini Corona.” Racism is not just limited to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem but extends to other universities as well. A Japanese student at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem expressed her distress of being mistaken for a Chinese person and how her fellow students have been maintaining distance from her and accusing her of having the virus.

The problem of racism towards East Asians is not a new notion in Israel, but has become even more prominent with the outbreak of Coronavirus. The blunt of bigotry extends to anyone who shares any similarity in physical features to that of an East Asian person. Even the Indian Israelis were not spared of this prejudice.

Deadly Attacks on the Indian Israeli, Hailing from North East India

Due to the outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus, several accounts of racism and xenophobia have been reported and documented around the world. In a recent incident involving a member of the Bnei Menashe, who immigrated from North East India to Israel, was attacked due to increasing hostility, hatred and fear towards Coronavirus. This unsettling event happened in Tiberias, when Am-Shalem Singson walked past two men in the streets. These men judged him for being Chinese and started yelling “Corona-Corona” and “Chinese” at him. In wake of the incident, Michael Freund, founder of Shavei Israel that looks after the Bnei Menashe Jews amongst others, stated “The coronavirus does not distinguish between different types of Israelis based on their skin or the shape of their eyes and neither should anyone else.”

The small Bnei Menashe Jewish community is horrified from the event. The community leaders have condemned this act of “racism, bullying and harassment because of their skin, color or race.” After witnessing the harrowing event, Jews of Bnei Menashe who once believed in a Jewish state that wasn’t racist, are now contemplating to “think again.” This incident is not first of its kind, and people have been reporting of uncomforting racism against them. The COVID-19 pandemic has set forth a series of increased violence, discrimination, xenophobia and racism towards people based on descent and appearances that requires deliberate action around the world.

An Uptick in Racist Incidents in Israel and World Wide

In another incident, Shaina Oppenheimer, an American Jew who immigrated to Israel reported about racism which became a part of her life and routine. She claimed that she often found it hard to be considered as “one of them,” and now the rampant fear of Coronavirus is making it much worse. Similar to the experiences faced by others, she also came across people yelling “China, Ni Hao” and “Konichi-Wa” at her. Shaina expected a better treatment from her own people after centuries of antisemitism around the world, and that choosing Israel as her new home would be different.

Living in Israel and a surge in the racist slurs, triggered by the wake of Coronavirus has concerned many Asians about Israel as a multicultural society. But as more cases are reported each day, the widespread panic is contributing to racial hatred against people of Asian descent or anyone who looks East Asian. This sort of racism is not only confined to the borders of Israel, but to other parts of the world, especially in France, India, Australia, United States and United Kingdom. In France, East Asian descent people are also using the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus, which interprets to “I am not a virus” in French. Cafes and Restaurants from Rome to Seoul were found with signboards outside reading “No entry to Chinese people,” while a French daily Courrier Picard published a headline that said “Yellow Alert.”

The idea of multiculturalism in Israel is contested by a lot of scholars. Some may claim it to be inviting and tolerant, others would believe otherwise. With no doubt, the society is going through perilous and alarming time where racism has gone unchecked. The very idea of multicultural citizenship in Israel has been challenged to its core with the advent of Coronavirus. The state and society conduct in Israel has raised questions on the ill-treatment of its ethnic and cultural minorities. The deadly pandemic that has spurred anti-Chinese and xenophobic sentiments against Asians worldwide, has also stoked debates and discussions on how to address this issue internally. The leadership should look into how the Coronavirus is setting off a rise of another social issue. This by product of the pandemic, if not taken seriously now, can take a long time to heal.

Mansheetal Singh is an ISGAP Fellow and Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation.

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